Korean barbecue is a peculiar and interesting dining experience, boasting a laborious set of customs and practices that make it a pleasant farcry from just about every other restaurant variety a casual consumer could hope to step foot in. In just about every regard, it is completely unique, which is a less than common train within the modern food scene. Now, you might be immediately inclined to disagree with me on that point, directing my attention towards the Yakiniku Japanese barbecue restaurants that share a similar degree of customer participation. While it’s true that both seem to capitalize on the responsibility-free method of making customers grill their own food, any comparison beyond that singularity would suggest to me that you are inexperienced with one or the other. For one, the accoutrements are vastly different. For two, the seasonings are divided by a small sect of the North Pacific Ocean. For three, one has a tragic lack of Kimchi. For four, and most importantly, Yakiniku restaurants are all equipped with the sure-fire cordiality, and warm customer service that the Japanese are famed for. This is not the case when you go for Korean barbecue. At a Korean barbecue restaurant, every request is an inconvenience. They won’t hesitate to Frisbee toss your meat trays in the general direction of your grill from the kitchen, or push your toddler out of their chair onto the floor to make room at the table for your vegetable platter. They are apathetic to customer service, and they are self-aware of their apathy. That’s why all of their gratuity charges are added automatically.
I decided to go to the Korean barbecue just the other night, backed by a vanguard of two of the finest lads this big blue sphere has yet to produce. We starved ourselves for half the day to make sure we ended up eating our money’s worth, and showed up at around eight to dodge the dinner rush. This level of preparation is almost mandatory when trying to show up to a restaurant during covid times, as they all have a maximum occupancy that is half of what it normally would be. If we had gone at five or six we would have had to wait outside, but given that we went at eight, we were shown a table immediately. We were then seated at the table next to it, which was confusing, but I quickly put it out of my mind as they were both completely identical. Our host left us to take in our surroundings while he went to fetch us our server, after a minute I saw him mouth something to a young bespectacled Korean boy coming out of the kitchen while pointing at our table. The boy’s eyes traced the line of the host’s finger until they landed upon us, and when they did his face twisted into a dark scowl. He shook his head, muttered something, grabbed an aggravated handful of one too many menus, and stormed over to the table. When he arrived he addressed us as follows:
“I’m sorry, but perhaps there’s been a misunderstanding, perhaps you three are lost. We don’t serve roast beef and potatoes here, there are no chicken fingers on our menu. I’m not going to stand here and tolerate being asked whether or not there’s pesto in our dishes. Are you sure you don’t want to dine at a venue more oriented to the culinary practices of your particular creed?”
He seemed to making a subtle jab at the fact that we all looked Caucasian. I told him that I didn’t think he should act on such a rash prejudice.
“This is a well-confounded prejudice.” He rebutted sharply. “It’s based on personal anecdote. I’m not one to adopt wide spread generalizations as my own convictions just because of their popularity.”
I told him that I respected his resolute stance, and his authenticity, but would appreciate it if he could swallow his pride and show us some menus. He called me a pale-faced ingrate, told me that I should mind my tongue, and then passed the menus around the table.
“Might I ask you a question?” I asked, as my two companions glanced over the options.
“You may not.”
“How is it that you’ve learned to speak in such a scholarly manner?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your eloquence, my good man. Where did it come from?”
“My talented tongue is something that can only be acquired through a strenuous familiarity with the ways of Korean barbeque.”
I nodded contently, but quickly deduced that he was telling a lie, due to a slight facial twitch, and the fact that what he said made no sense whatsoever. He let twenty seconds pass, before proceeding to snatch the menus out of all three of our hands, stating that if we hadn’t memorized the entire page yet we weren’t worthy of eating there. Quite the hostile fellow, I decided, but he had some great fervor about him that made me proud that we got him as our server. It isn’t every day you come across someone who so brazenly speaks their mind without any regard for their surrounding elements. I decided to pay that compliment to him out loud, he called me whitey, and asked what we would be having to drink.
“We’ll start with a bottle of Soju.”
His eyes popped clean out of his head, and he collapsed unconscious to the floor. The three of us sat in shock until two of his fellow servers walked by and noticed their comatose comrade.
“What happened to him?” One of them asked.
“I dunno really, I was just trying to order the Soju.”
“Soju …” He paused in astonishment. “You ordered, the Soju?”
His face changed to elation almost immediately, and he sprinted into the back to relay the news to the rest of his constituents. The next thing we knew our table was surrounded by the entire staff, from the prep cooks, to the dishwashers, the hosts, the servers, and even the manager. One by one, they dropped to their knees, bowed their heads politely, and thanked us for choosing to dine with them. They apologized profusely for any wait we had to face, and assured us that our orders, including and especially the soju, would be out before we knew it. They did all of this unfazed by their incapacitated co-worker’s body lying in a heap beside the table, they were working around him very swiftly. I assumed that this was a regular occurrence, and that he would receive all of the proper treatment necessary for his resuscitation after closing time. For now, it was best to leave him be and focus on the food.
What followed was one of the most delightful meals of my recent memory. The staff piled our table with mountains of short ribs, beef slices, pork slices, kimchi, toasted garlic, onions, potatoes, crisp sheets of lettuce, pickled radish, bowls of rice, gutters of eggs, cups of soup, and globs of gochujang. Our Soju came served on a platter, with shot glasses in tow. We cried geonbae to the high heavens in toast with our glasses, and when we finished our bottle we opted for pints of frosty beer to wash everything down. I manned the grill to the best of my abilities, laying down the various meats and vegetables in different intervals so that it felt like we were eating a constant stream of food as opposed to a bunch of separate courses. I’m ashamed to report there were some slip-ups, and the job I did was less than adequate.
About halfway through our meal I noticed a group of Serbian gentlemen wearing matching Adidas tracksuits taking a seat at the table adjacent to us. They ordered pints, and about thirty trays beef, which isn’t too atypical, and made me turn my attentions elsewhere until their food actually came. When it did, they proceeded to dump all thirty trays directly onto the grill without a moment’s hesitation, or consideration for overcrowding. After the initial flare-up of the fire they sat nursing their pints as the meat on the grill overcooked to the point of burning, and there was a thick smokestack dispersing from their centre table all throughout the restaurant. Noticing this, an employee walked by and remarked that all of their food was torched, and asked if something was the matter, to which the leader of the group calmly replied:
“This is how we like it.”
This left the employee completely stumped, so he walked away to try and shut the now blaring fire alarm off, and allow the restaurant to get smoked out in peace. The noise didn’t stop the Serbians from their banter for even a moment. They continued with their pints until all of the meat on the grill had turned to charcoal briquettes, and was clearly not intended to be eaten. Once their drinks had reached their bottom, they simply paid for the food, and left.
Shortly after they had gone, a strange looking Germanic family took their place at the same table. They ordered waters, green tea, and two kinds of every variety of meat on the menu. When their server came around to fire up their grill, the oldest member of the group waved his hand no and told him that such a thing wouldn’t be necessary. This piqued my interest, and the interest of many others surrounding. When their food finally came, we all watched in horror as the family began gulping down their servings of meat raw, with no additional seasonings or sides. Many turned away in disgust, many were too captivated by the sight to do so. Noticing a disturbance for the second time, the same employee who challenged the Serbians asked the group if everything was all right, and inquired about their methods of consumption. The eldest member spoke:
“This is how we like it.”
Knowing he was bested, the employee enacted his second shameful retreat. I really felt quite bad for him. Perhaps if he was gifted with the acerbic wit of our still unconscious server, he could have come up with some kind of parry to that bulletproof phrase. But, he was sadly lacking, and seemed to realize all at once that he belonged the enormous group of people in the world who spend their days hoping that strangers won’t say things to them that they won’t be able to respond to. He didn’t return until the family had paid for their meal, and left.
The final occurrence happened as we were paying our own bill, and it was an event I wasn’t aware of until its climax. Presently, a random bystander slid in to the restaurant after noticing our server’s still docile body lying in a messy pile beside our table. Unbeknownst to me, that stranger decided to sneak up right next to us, and drag said body through the dining room and into a nearby broom closet. Two minutes later, he emerged wearing the servers full uniform, even going as far as the spectacles. There’s no telling what this being was capable of under the guise of such a formidable disguise, and I tell you with the utmost confidence that all parties present within the restaurant were lucky to have the observational prowess of my two friends at their disposal. The stranger made his way to the area near the front door, to try to position himself as a host for the newcomers. As he was arriving at his outpost, a group of girls walked in, and with some clearly sinister intentions he made his approach. However, just as he was able to make initial contact, one of my friends who was silently watching the entire ordeal leaned back in his chair and said to the group:
“Be careful, he doesn’t work here.”
“Rats!” Shouted the scoundrel knowing he’d be busted, and he scurried off like a Scooby-Doo villain across the street and down an alleyway.
“Thanks for that.” Said our second server, while placing our copy of the receipt down on the table.
“It was nothing, really.” Said my other friend, as we all stood up to leave.
“Oh alright, never mind then.” She replied, and walked into the back without another word, leaving us to head home and indulge in a long night of cards, and immobile drinking.
If you’ve made it this far in my completely verbatim account of my most recent experience with Korean barbecue, I thank you for reading. But, I need to ask you to do me a real solid. You see, I come from a pretty feisty lineage of Japanese descendants, who are extremely prideful about their roots and traditions. This isn’t a problem, and I share in most of that pride, but there’s this archaic tradition between the older Asian generations to hate every other kind of Asian for a variety of inexplicable, and a few explicable reasons. It is their sworn duty to declare their own country, and their own country’s cuisine to be superior beyond a shadow of a doubt. The food from the other countries is putrid garbage, and they always get the rice wrong. With that in mind, I kindly ask that you refrain from ever telling my grandfather that I actively enjoy the Korean barbecue experience. He would have more than a few choice words with me if he were to ever come across such information, and I wish to avoid as many lengthy diatribes about my lack of respect for my heritage as I possibly can. As it were, I’m supposed to stick to Japanese cuisine with the brand loyalty of Wile E. Coyote to ACME, and stating that I prefer the Korean option of any type of food would result in me being beaten with a Kanabō club.